SUSAN STAMBERG, host:
Once there was a girl named Caroline. All she wanted was a husband and three children.
That's the beginning of a short story by Jenny Allen, one of three stories in a new book for adults called The Long Chalkboard. The tales are full of sweet fancy and mostly well intentioned, albeit deeply determined, people. The writing is quick and witty and so are the illustrations by cartoonist Jules Feiffer. The two collaborators sat for a chat in a New York living room.
How long have you been together, the two of you?
Mr. JULES FEIFFER (Cartoonist, The Long Chalkboard): We're married, actually, so we…
STAMBERG: You're married?
Ms. JENNY ALLEN (Writer, The Long Chalkboard): We've been married for 23 years.
STAMBERG: They have three daughters. The book is dedicated to Kate, Halley and Julie Feiffer. Their sunny, rambly Upper West Side apartment is jammed with family photographs, Feiffer drawings and books, books, books. About 19 of them are cartoon collections by Jules Feiffer. He also writes plays and movies. The Long Chalkboard is the couple's first literally collaboration.
Jenny Allen is a journalist. She's written for The New York Times, New York magazine, Esquire. Of late, she's done stand up comedy in the city but no fiction until now.
Ms. ALLEN: I had this notion for a story. It was just a little yarn that occurred to me in a perhaps kind of fey way. I didn't really know what form it would take.
STAMBERG: She worked for a while, showed it around to a few pals. A publisher asked for more stories enough to make up a book. At first, Jenny Allen was going to ask a friend to do the illustrations, but her Pulitzer Prize-winning husband took a look, liked what he read and Jules Feiffer began to draw.
Mr. FEIFFER: It's very much like casting a play. What the book turns out to be, although I hadn't intended that, was to take Jenny's writing and turn it into a storyboard, I mean into a film storyboard. And that meant looking at shots and angles, but also casting characters. You know, like getting the right actors to get up there and do the part. And I would show her - I would do three or four versions of different characters, of the same character, and she would look at them and we've always ended up agreeing.
STAMBERG: Did they come close, the characters, to what was in your mind?
Ms. ALLEN: Very much so. There was - very much so. There was one - the middle story, which is a romance between a kind of cranky children's book writer and a more soft, sweeter male children's book writer. She was a little too pointy.
STAMBERG: A little scary looking even. So Feiffer redrew her, curved her up a bit. This cranky, successful author Audrey, who is known for her series of What Happened books: What happened to Christy's Christmas tree? What happened to Paul's Porum costume? What happened to Dalma's Saga Dawa dumplings? Children absolutely love her books even though Audrey is the kind of person who says, look, not everyone plays well with others; that's why people become writers.
Jenny Allen gives her fictional writer lots of idiosyncrasies.
Ms. ALLEN: (Reading) Audrey had a policy against personalizing books at signings, having found it time consuming and irritating. First, the customer had to spell his or her name, or the name of the niece or grandchild the book was for. This exchange, Audrey had noticed, seemed to make the customer feel that here she was now on familiar terms with Audrey, who then had to answer questions or look at baby pictures or relate for the umteenth time where she got her ideas. She was particularly uncomfortable about this subject since her books were basically one idea repeated, however cleverly, over and over. She found that signing her name with at most a simple happy holidays worked best.
STAMBERG: She is the grouchiest, most unpleasant - now we think of children's authors as the sweetest, most smiling people. So what was your thought about that, Jenny?
Ms. ALLEN: Well, there's a little of her in me. I think people think I'm that sort of a jolly person, but in fact I am fairly cranky. There's a lot of me in her, I think. I think she's who I would be if I didn't have anybody to report to, you know, or answer to.
STAMBERG: Yeah. And I love that she comforts herself when she's really upset. She eats split pea soup.
Ms. ALLEN: Yes, well, I do love that. That is true. Yeah. That's is true.
STAMBERG: Do you do that, between the two of you, split pea soup, a big…
Mr. FEIFFER: Guess what we're having for lunch.
(Soundbite of laughing)
STAMBERG: Soon, Jenny Allen starts going back and forth from the kitchen, aiming a few long handled spoons at various pots. Her husband works up an appetite by discussing work, deadlines, drawing. Jules Feiffer's illustrations for The Long Chalkboard were done in charcoal. Earlier in his drawing life, especially for the comic strip he did for 42 years for The Village Voice, Feiffer used longer lasting mediums.
Mr. FEIFFER: Markers. I used to work with pens. I used to work with all sort of things that I wanted to give me the freedom that I used to have when I was a kid drawing with pencil. And nothing seemed to do it until I stumbled in my seventies, God help me, on charcoal pencil. And I realized I'd been behaving like a moron for 60 years of my career.
STAMBERG: But charcoal's - that's very dicey because it smudges. You have to really be careful.
Mr. FEIFFER: It's all very dicey. It's all very sloppy. It's all very expensive because you throw out paper - sheet after expensive paper. But you…
Ms. ALLEN: You can hear him in here from the other room, three rooms away, cursing, when you realized he's had to throw the whole drawing away. Ten pieces in the waste paper basket. And you know, it's - he says I've spent all day on this one drawing.
Mr. FEIFFER: And each time it's all about the freshness of the line, and the freshness of the expression and telling the story.
STAMBERG: The three stories in The Long Chalkboard written by Jenny Allen and illustrated by her husband Jules Feiffer are hip, bittersweet and baby boomer ready, especially about the part about split pea soup and lunch.
Ms. ALLEN: Whoa! Something smells wonderful…
STAMBERG: Soup's on, but you can see and read excerpts of The Long Chalkboard at npr.org.
(Soundbite of music)
STAMBERG: This MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Susan Stamberg.
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And I'm Steve Inskeep.
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